Leopold Spenner, CEO alcemy © BMWK

22 April 2024

"We enable our customers to position themselves at the forefront of a transforming industry."

The figures are huge: the cement and concrete industry accounts for 2.8 gigatons of CO2 per year worldwide and therefore accounts for eight percent of all global CO2 emissions. So it's no wonder that the topic of decarbonization and the fight against climate change play a special role here and that a rethink is needed.

The young Berlin-based start-up alcemy was launched back in 2018 with the vision of using predictive AI technology to enable cement and concrete manufacturers to successfully make the transition to a climate-neutral industry. The team around founders Leopold Spenner and Dr. Robert Meyer recently set themselves the ambitious goal of saving at least 100 million tons of CO2 per year by 2030 together with their customers. #ai_berlin caught up with CEO Leopold Spenner to find out more about their ingenious solutions, the simultaneous calls for affordable housing and sustainability, and their Sustainable Concrete Leaders initiative.

Hello Mr. Spenner. When it comes to sustainability solutions, the construction industry with its massive demand for concrete and cement is not the first thing many people think of. What's your connection to this topic and what was the reason for founding alcemy?

That's right. The building sector has only come to the public's attention in recent years. Yet it is responsible for 38 percent of CO2 worldwide. A lot of CO2 is also emitted during construction itself. The building materials concrete and cement alone are responsible for around 8 percent of global emissions. My family has been working in the cement and concrete industry for almost 100 years and I spent a large part of my childhood in the cement works in Erwitte. When the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) was introduced in 2005, CO2 emissions and the urgent need for decarbonization took on a completely different role. I felt responsible and wanted to play my part in finding solutions to reduce the industry's CO2 footprint.

A major lever for reducing CO2 emissions is the production of cements with significantly less cement clinker, the precursor of cement, which is responsible for the majority of CO2. If I reduce this proportion, the production of cement and concrete generally becomes more demanding. Fluctuations in production then have an even greater impact on quality. I was aware that data-driven control technology was needed. When I met Robert Meyer, who had helped set up the machine learning team at Flixbus, at the Entrepreneur First Program, exactly these topics came together: Control engineering, based on ML, and cement and concrete production. Voila, alcemy was founded.

How do your solutions work technically and in which areas exactly are they used?

We offer our customers an integrated product solution in both cement and ready-mix concrete plants, i.e. we provide software that supports the production of cement and ready-mix concrete right through to delivery to the construction site. In this way, we enable precise and close-meshed quality monitoring along the entire value chain and enable manufacturers to gradually make their products lower in clinker or CO2-reduced.
For our product in the cement plant, this means that we enable continuous analysis of quality-relevant data from chemistry, mineralogy and grain size distribution. On the one hand, this provides our customers with unique forecasts for quality parameters and, on the other, calculations of target values for optimizing current cement production, which are automatically fed back into the process. This enables cement producers to produce significantly more profitably, reduce their energy costs and focus on the production of sustainable cements - all while maintaining the same level of quality.

With our product for ready-mix concrete producers, we build the bridge to delivery of the concrete to the construction site. Ready-mix concrete production has to deal with the more demanding low-clinker cements, which generally require less water. With the help of our real-time forecasts, we enable continuous monitoring of the consistency of the fresh concrete - a quality parameter that is extremely important for the construction site itself. We use existing data from the mixing plant and supplement it with sensor data from the truck mixer, which we have equipped with IoT sensors such as a digital water meter, magnetic sensor, oil pressure sensor and telemetry unit.

This provides producers with valuable insights into the actual condition of the concrete, how it actually arrives at the construction site and transparency and safety in production.

alcemy is now running at a third of all German cement plants and you are already active in six other countries. Does your solution seem to be going down well in this industry, which is often still very traditional when it comes to digitalization?

The topic of decarbonization is now preoccupying the cement and concrete industry worldwide. With rising demand, but also the EU emissions trading scheme, which will take full effect in the coming years, decarbonization is not only a question of conviction, but increasingly also a question of profitability. We enable our customers to position themselves at the forefront of a transforming industry and to tackle the issue of digital quality assurance in addition to avoiding CO2 emissions. This may sound trivial, but it is hugely important. The construction industry generally has a major problem attracting new skilled workers. Very well-trained people in the cement and concrete industry will be retiring in the next few years. The production of more climate-friendly cements and concretes will become more demanding and challenging in the future. With alcemy, we deliver added value in terms of sustainability and quality assurance, which is rightly perceived as essential and important by many manufacturers.

Cement is a trillion-dollar business and the call for new housing is unbroken in Germany and internationally. How do you feel about the demand for greener solutions, like yours, when it tends to be more about the faster-higher-further principle?

To be honest, I think that green solutions form the basis for successfully meeting the major challenges. Particularly with regard to the call for living space that you mentioned, it is clear today that we need solutions like alcemy to meet this demand in a contemporary way. Global urbanization means that we will be building much more in the future. Concrete is the building material of the present and the future. There will be no way to replace the building material in its entirety, so "green solutions" must focus on reducing the carbon footprint of concrete as much as possible.

Let's talk about the "Sustainable Concrete Leaders" initiative. What is behind it?

In order to drive forward the complete decarbonization of the concrete value chain, it will not be enough just to promote innovation on the production side. Project developers and construction companies are a key component of the construction industry, and their demand for sustainable building materials is hugely important to our mission. We have therefore decided to establish the Sustainable Concrete Leaders network, in which we connect project developers and construction companies and advise them on the use of sustainable concretes. Members of the network, such as Art-Invest, EDGE, Momeni, Bonava and others, are pioneers when it comes to sustainability and are committed to promoting the use of sustainable concrete. With the network, we offer an important platform for exchanging experiences in the use of such concretes. The network is currently growing steadily and we are convinced that it will form an important basis for making the use of sustainable concretes the new standard.

Speaking of innovations for decarbonization, four of your customers have dared to launch the so-called "CEM X" on the market with your support. What makes this concrete so special?

CEM X is a real innovative breakthrough that sets new standards in the field of sustainable cements and concretes. Unfortunately, a lot of concrete with a high proportion of cement clinker is still used today. In the future, concretes will have to look different. Our customer Spenner has been working with us for years on a new type of cement for the cement plants in Erwitte and Berlin. This so-called "CEM X" is really special because it only contains just under 30 percent cement clinker and uses limestone powder (37 percent) as a substitute, which is widely available. We, but also the entire industry, believe that precisely this type of cement will be enormously important in the future in order to achieve decarbonization. This CEM X, which is then processed into concrete, will also be used in the EDGE Friedrichspark construction project in Berlin (near Berghain) and will enable significant CO2 savings.

Let's talk about Berlin: What was the reason for founding the company here? What are the advantages, also with regard to the AI ecosystem?

When Rob and I founded alcemy in 2018 after participating in an Entrepreneur First (EF) program, we thought about where our headquarters could be. We quickly decided on Berlin. We found a vibrant startup scene here with many networking opportunities and a strong network structure of accelerator programs and mentoring sets. The opportunity to interact with other founders and share experiences was extremely valuable for Robert and me, especially at the beginning. We have never regretted it, because Berlin is a great advantage in the battle for the best talent. Although we are a hybrid company and every team member is free to decide when to go to the office, you can reach good people much more quickly and in a more targeted manner in Berlin thanks to the many contact points and other start-ups. We always need motivated and well-qualified software and machine learning developers to further develop our products in cement and concrete. Berlin as an AI location and with the Hasso Plattner Institute in the immediate vicinity, offers us the opportunity to position ourselves as a modern, dynamic deep-tech company with an exciting machine learning system.

Thank you very much for the interview and good luck.